Introduction

What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Ben McGrath is not like a piece by Jill Lepore, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Goodyear, or Filkins for Khatchadourian, or Bilger for Paumgarten. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

John Kinsella's Great "Milking the Tiger Snake"


John Kinsella (Photo by Michael Wilson)













John Kinsella’s brilliant “Milking the Tiger Snake” (The New Yorker, January 9, 2017) evokes a transfixing image – a bushman extracting venom from a deadly snake:

Fangs through a balloon, an orange balloon
stretched over a jam-jar mouth scrubbed-up
bush standard—fangs dripping what looks
like semen, which is venom, one of the most
deadly, down grooves and splish splash
onto the lens of the distorting glass-bottom
boat we look up into, head of tiger
snake pressed flat with the bushman’s
thumb—his scungy hat that did Vietnam,
a bandolier across his matted chest
chocked with cartridges—pistoleer
who takes out ferals with secretive
patriotic agendas. And we kids watch
him draw the head of the fierce snake,
its black body striped yellow. “It will rear
up like a cobra if cornered, and attack,
attack!” he stresses as another couple
of droplets form and plummet. And when
we say, “Mum joked leave them alone
and they’ll go home,” he retorts, “Typical
bloody woman, first to moan if she’s bit,
first to want a taste of the anti-venom
that comes of my rooting these black
bastards out, milking them dry, down
to the last drop.” Tiger snake’s eyes
peer out crazily targeting the neck
of the old coot with his dirty mouth,
its nicotine garland. He from whom
we learn, who shows us porno
and tells us what’s what. Or tiger snake
out of the wetlands, whip-cracked
by the whip of itself until its back is broke.

“Milking the Tiger Snake” is absolutely alive. What makes it so? How does Kinsella achieve his effects? One way is his use of zero articles – not “the fangs,” but “fangs”; not “the head of a tiger snake,” but “head of tiger snake”; not “the tiger snake’s eyes,” but “tiger snake’s eyes”; not “the tiger snake out of the wetlands,” but “tiger snake out of the wetlands.” Cutting the articles intensifies the image.

Another Kinsella move is his use of the present tense (“look,” “watch,” “stress,” “say,” “retorts,” “peer,” “learn,” “shows,” “tells”). Use of the present tense makes the image more immediate, direct, and impactful.

A third Kinsella technique is his use of words I can see (“fangs through a balloon, an orange balloon,” “stretched over a jam-jar mouth,” “fangs dripping what looks / like semen, which is venom,” “down grooves and splish splash / onto the lens of the distorting glass-bottom / boat,” “head of tiger / snake pressed flat with the bushman’s / thumb,” “scungy hat that did Vietnam,” “a bandolier across his matted chest / chocked with cartridges,” “the fierce snake, / its black body striped yellow,” “droplets form and plummet,” “the old coot with his dirty mouth, / its nicotine garland,” “tiger snake / out of the wetlands, whip-cracked / by the whip of itself until its back is broke”). These words jump to life as I read them.

Two more aspects of “Milking the Tiger Snake” that contribute to its vitality: (1) The rhythmic way it moves down the page, its six sentences acoustically arranged in thirty-two lines; (2) Its spontaneity; it has the feel of actual encounter, naked experience, quickly sketched as it’s happening, or immediately afterwards, while the details are still vivid. 

“Milking the Tiger Snake” is a great poem – where greatness means original, evocative, vigorous, specific, and striking. I enjoyed it immensely.

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